It's a downward spiral of decline

December 17, 2004

As degree up-take dwindles, so does teacher supply. Anthea Lipsett reports

"In 2002, only 7 per cent of people who went into secondary schools to teach science had a physics degree," says Peter Main, director of physics education at the Institute of Physics (IoP).

The dearth of qualified graduates teaching specialist subjects in schools is a problem faced by all the sciences in the Government's recent list of endangered academic subjects. The shortage of teachers overall is especially acute in subjects such as maths, science and modern languages.

These disciplines face the alarming prospect of a spiral of decline: fewer and less-qualified teachers will lead to fewer university students; and fewer graduates in turn will result in a dwindling supply of teachers.

In 2001, of 1,622 people training to be science teachers, 467 were chemists, 242 were physicists (not necessarily physics degree holders) and the rest were biologists, Professor Main said. This has dire consequences for the quality of teaching in schools. "If physics is taught by a biologist, that person will not have as much enthusiasm for the subject as a physicist. It's only natural."

The parallel problem in chemistry teaching has a huge impact on pupils, said Libby Steele, the Royal Society of Chemistry's manager for professional education and development. "Kids can't be enthused by someone who's not confident or competent."

According to RSC figures published this year, the number of chemistry teachers has more than halved since 1984. But the evidence is incomplete and next year the Government is expected to publish data giving a clearer picture of who is actually teaching science in schools.

One of the key problems is that science graduates are highly sought after in the employment market and do not choose to go into teaching. Financial incentives such as bursaries and golden hellos have helped, Professor Main said, but so would making the curriculum more interesting.

He added: "There's no point in wringing our hands. In the short to medium term, we need to look at more practical solutions."

For instance, last week the IoP launched a project to support non-specialist physics teachers through a series of continuing professional development courses. Another joint scheme run by the Teacher Training Agency and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation will offer people who want to teach, but who lack qualifications, booster courses in specialist subjects before they train to teach.

The recently launched national network of science learning centres should help teachers teach. But it will only work where teachers have the opportunity to take advantage of them, Professor Main said. "The Government needs to make it a prerequisite or give more money if they go on professional development courses."

Getting teachers to stay in the profession is also difficult. Professor Main suggested making loan repayments for graduates while they stay in teaching.

Maths faces similar problems. The London Mathematical Society is keen to see the supply of mathematics teachers increased and their skills renewed.

This means making sure courses are widely available in universities across the UK.

Amanda Chetwynd, vice-president of the London Mathematical Society and professor of maths and statistics at Lancaster University, said: "The Smith report said that 30 per cent of teachers do not have higher than an A level in maths. There are not enough students doing maths degrees to go on into teaching."

Rebanding maths for funding purposes would be a great help to universities that are questioning whether they can afford to run maths departments, she said. "Initial money is needed to break the cycle and get students to study maths, go on to teach in schools and inspire children."

The closure of university chemistry and physics departments affects each subject differently. While the number of physics graduates has remained steady, the RSC is more concerned.

Departments rated 4 in the last research assessment exercise but with hundreds of students, such as chemistry at Exeter University, are vulnerable because of the funding mechanism, said Ms Steele. The closures of 4-rated departments means a loss of potential students who could go into teaching. Students in 5 or 5* departments are likely to want to do research, she added.

On the upside, ambassadorial schemes, where undergraduates teach in schools, are helping teachers as well as drawing students to teaching as a career.

"The appeal of teaching changes dramatically when students go into the classroom as ambassadors. They can see it would be something they might enjoy. They learn far more about their subject and it exposes them to a different view of teaching," Ms Steele said.

This is the tactic taken by language departments in universities to counteract what has been perceived as the pernicious effect of government policy. From last September, languages were dropped as a compulsory part of the curriculum for Key Stage 4 pupils, prompting concern in universities.

Frank Finlay, head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Leeds University, said: "That's obviously going to have a knock-on effect on numbers coming through to A level and degree level. That will affect student numbers more than fees."

While independent schools embrace internationalisation, those in the state sector will have problems getting sufficient quality teachers, he said.

"There's supposed to be some element of provision in primary schools but by the time it gets through there won't be anyone to teach them. It's a joke."

Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of the Standing Conference of Heads of Modern Languages in Universities and executive director of Manchester's Language Centre, said the Government wanted more students to take languages at university but the decision to remove the subject from secondary schools' core curriculum would have the opposite effect.

"We must avoid a downward spiral in which a shortage of linguists worsens the current shortage of language teachers. The Department for Education and Skills is offering golden hellos of £4,000 to new language teachers at the moment, and its ambitious plans to give every pupil throughout Key Stage 2 the chance to learn at least one foreign language by the end of the decade will only be achieved if we have the linguists to teach pupils."

Roger Woods, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said universities would feel the curriculum change. "Many are anticipating the problem and working with schools to stimulate interest in languages."

While some ambassadorial schemes have been set up in science and engineering subjects, a gap exists in the arts. Professor Woods hopes to fill this with a similar scheme for languages that allows undergraduates to gain credits towards their degree by going into schools to help out. He said the Teacher Training Agency looks keen to address the issues.

'The turn-off is that modern languages aren't challenging enough'

Christopher Harte, a teacher at St Robert of Newminster Catholic School and Sixth Form College in Sunderland, said the Government's strategy on language learning has not been thought through.

"The terrain has changed so much that it makes it difficult for teachers."

Mr Harte won the Teacher Training Agency Award for Outstanding New Teacher this year thanks to a rigorous, dynamic and challenging teaching style.

But he said he found the GCSE course content difficult to work with. "If the content is boring, it's difficult to keep kids engaged. It's all about taking what's not a brilliant base (Key Stage 4 is boring), turning it on its head and engaging the kids."

Mr Harte uses music and props: anything to spice up his classes.

But course content is his biggest challenge: that and the slightly parochial English mentality that fails to see the need for learning languages.

"The modern languages strategy at Key Stage 3 is good. The real turn-off is that modern languages are not challenging enough. Kids don't want to do A level."

Mr Harte, one of the youngest Advanced Skills Teachers in the country, last year looked into introducing languages in primary schools in Sunderland.

"It's a vicious circle. Who's going to teach in primary schools?" he said.

The Government's £4,000 golden hello for shortage subjects is a good incentive but keeping teachers in the profession is harder.

Mr Harte said: "You can get people to train but many go elsewhere after three years because of the perceptions of the profession."

Manchester University's Keep Talking project sends overseas Erasmus students to local schools so children and teachers can interact with an "authentic foreigner".

Its undergraduates and postgraduates are trained and paid to go into schools to help with classes and to encourage children to carry on studying languages.

Jane Dowson organises placements. She said: "A lot of the support is for the teachers."

At this stage, the programme targets sixthformers and Key Stage 4 pupils but there are plans to extend this to Key Stage 3 pupils.

"That's when they choose not to do a language any more, so we need to motivate them earlier," explained Jocelyn Wyburd, executive director of Manchester's Language Centre, who is leading the project. A primary school initiative is also under consideration.

Structured language workshops are provided on the university campus.

Karen Dixon, PGCE trainer of secondary school language teachers, is acting as a consultant on year 9.

She said: "We have 180 Key Stage 3 pupils coming in January to do workshops using television, language-learning software and labs. It's about motivation and getting them to see a relevance to learning languages."

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